Imagine a large table.  A round table, if you may. Seated at the table are shamans and biochemists, physicians and religious adepts, psychiatrists, neuropharmacologists, and of course, quite a few anthropologists.  What would they be talking about?  Ayahuasca would certainly be a good place to start.  Ayahuasca – the psychoactive potion used in shamanic rituals by Amazonian indigenous peoples – has transcended its jungle origins, and is currently being used in urban centers throughout the world by diverse religious groups, by traditional and not-so-traditional shamans and in the global pyschedelic cyber-market at the margins of the law.  As such, ayahuasca has been the subject of a growing body of biomedical, anthropological, historical and philosophical studies, at the same time attracting the attention of drug control and law-enforcement agencies in different countries.  The result has been a harvest of diverse, complex and even contradictory findings.  When the discussion on ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances remains within the realm of anthropology or comparative religion, we are still on relatively safe epistemological footing for most parties, barring the most radical religious fundamentalists and prohibitionists:  namely, Cartesian dualism allows for the tolerance (to a certain point) of diverse cultural and religious manifestation as mental phenomena, as long as these meditations do not interfere with the dominion of the natural science canon in the rational parsing and understanding of the universal workings of matter.  Within the traditional scientific attitude,  as much as in the legal defense of “religious” use of ayahuasca or the insistence in some pro-psychedelic circles on the use of the term “entheogen” (‘substance that manifests the God within’), we find a mutual effort to conform to the Cartesian dichotomy, thus assuring a sense of safety and epistemological status quo.  But when we consider the use of ayahuasca in the context of health – not only mental but also physical, sociological and ecological – we find ourselves once again in deep and dangerous waters, where all parties (except the original indigenous users) face threats to the epistemological basis of their own sciences, religions or political activism.  Is it possible for a Western health professional to maintain a dialogue with an indigenous shaman who claims to interact with forest spirits to diagnose and heal medical conditions as well as ecological imbalances?  Is ayahuasca efficacious in the treatment of chemical addictions?  Is it possible to separate the measurable nueropharmacological effects of ayahuasca from the symbolic-religious content of the visions it produces?  Can ayahuasca – whether considered sacrament, hallucinogen or medical wonder – produce dangerous synergistic interactions with certain pharmaceutical products?  Will our round table dissolve into Babel?  And what is ayahuasca, in the end:  Hallucinogenic drug?  Medicinal plant?  Religious sacrament?  Portal for inter-dimensional communication?  Or an ambiguous toxic plant that is fundamentally unknowable?  Read this book – a dialogue that is as much interdisciplinary as intercultural and inter-epistemological among diverse scientists, practitioners and activists – and find out…

 

Glenn H. Shepard Jr. 

Visiting scholar, Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil.